From the hustling, bustling, innocence rustling streets of New York City to the rainbow nations of the world, Michael de Feo’s primal aesthetic of the simplicity of organic perceptions has taken root in the recesses of global urban consciousness. The man behind the iconic flower image that has winked it’s petals at so many hardened communities, Michael’s work ranges from the unsettling self portrait to the exploration of the underwater world on a faded street corner, and with both his role in the evolution of modern street art since the early 90’s, and his unique incorporation of this subversively natural medium into children’s books and imagination, he has truly helped reshape the understanding of public art as a social force. We had a word with the man himself
Can you tell us a little about your background and your journey into street art?
My whole life I’ve known that I’ve wanted to do something with art and while I didn’t know how or what that would be, I knew that I wanted to be creative in some way for the rest of my life. Throughout my time at high school I got into it really heavily and it led me into 5 years at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I moved on from there to another college in New York called Manhattanville where I studied art education. It was during this time period in New York City at SVA in the early 90’s that I got into street art and it prompted me to participate as well.
How do you feel about the kind of nature of urban life and the context of art within it?
Well I think it’s inseparable especially in a big urban city. For somebody like myself I’ve never felt anything other than a need to participate in the fabric of that city life and for me that venue, that way of dong it, was through my art and sharing it publicly.
Was there something specific about the vibe in New York that really drove that explosion within you?
Absolutely, New York has always moved something within me ever since I was a child…… it has this energy, this sparkle, and I always was drawn to it. I grew up about a half an hour outside of New York, about 5 minutes outside the Bronx. As a child time my parents would bring me and my siblings down for whatever event happened to be going on, I was always so charged up about it and so thrilled to be there and even back then I knew that that city was something that I wanted to participate in. I felt that attraction, that pull to New York my whole life.
Tremendously so. It’s downright frightening. In such a short space of time, some neighbourhoods that I’m familiar with in the city have completely changed with the introduction of billboards and signage and so forth… it’s downright criminal. Many in our society are passive and I think that street art starts to jar people out of that. When people start to pick up on what’s happening creatively on the streets, they not only notice more street art that’s happening but more importantly, they begin to notice their surroundings, the place they actually live in. So, instead of darting out of the house and going straight to work and not really seeing their environment, they’re becoming more aware and engaged. I think that’s really important.
How did flowers evolve into such a major aspect of your work?
Quite accidentally actually… I came up with the image from a drawing session one evening years ago, and that particular one leapt out at me off the wall. I made a silk screen out of it, made hundred of prints of it in different colours, and then felt that I had to share it in the same way that I was putting my paintings up on the walls of lower Manhattan. When I first started, street art wasn’t anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is today and of course, the internet wasn’t a part of our everyday life like it is now so little street art was actually on the streets. Naturally, there was some stuff going on – occasionally Shepard would be in town and you’d see some of his stuff or you’d see a Jenny Holzer or a Phil Frost piece… Cost and Revs were everywhere but that was more or less it. There certainly wasn’t a large roster of people doing this stuff. At the time I was more prompted to do it as a way to side step the gallery system because I knew that galleries wouldn’t be interested in showing the work of a freshman in college. Things are a little bit different now but that was the impetus for me and the more I did it, especially with the flower, the more I began to realise the subversive implications of what I was doing. It was all kind of accidental and then grew and grew and quite honestly, I’m still learning from it, particularly with the flower project which is why it’s the only project that I’ve done that I still continue to this day and it’s been almost 18 years.
Do you think that the transience of street art is a metaphor for the transience of the organic world?
Absolutely. And that was one of the happy accidents of the flower project because it is a living thing, and just like all living things they’re born, they sprout, they live their existence for whatever length of time and then they either slowly wither away and die or they abruptly die and then sprout again elsewhere.
That also relates to how street art and advertising meet. It’s a funny contradiction and a lot of street artists like myself enjoy that we can subvert advertising by doing work in the streets but inevitably the more you do your work in the streets, the more you’re advertising yourself and I kind of like that contradiction. It tickles me.
Speaking of the galleries, where’s the balance now that you’re internationally successful between street work and gallery stuff?
I do both a lot and they always continue to inform each other. I don’t get too hung up about what’s street and what’s gallery and I do know that if I create something for the gallery and somebody purchases it it’s not going to undergo the destructive part of its existence – it’s going to stick around for a while in somebody’s home and they’re not going to touch it but that doesn’t really bother me much. Of course to me the work that’s outside is completely alive, and there really is nothing better or more fulfilling. After all, it’s meant to be outdoors.
How do you feel about someone buying your work and just keeping it somewhere privately?
The bottom line is it enables me to continue to do what I do. If I want to travel, if I want to live my life in this way I think it’s a pretty pleasant compromise, and I don’t mind it at all.
The New Orleans work was a continuation of an underwater project that I started here in New York. I’m a scuba diver, I’ve been diving since 2000 and I immediately fell in love with it from my very first experience. I’ve been diving since and with it being such a major interest and hobby of mine, I wanted to introduce some of that experience to the streets of New York- this shadowy underworld of animals and divers where details are too vague to be pinned down – and in some way put people under the surface of the ocean. When I got invited to go to New Orleans, it just seemed like a perfect fit to do that down there given the fact that Katrina had ripped though the city so recently. I wanted to see if I could perhaps introduce to the people of New Orleans a different association with water that for me, is an amazing one, – a magical one instead of a destructive one.
Was that one of your only politically specific art campaigns?
No, I did a TV campaign years ago in art school where I took a common street crossing warning sign of an adult and a child crossing the street together and I was replacing the heads on the children with television stickers. It was basically a commentary on television’s influence and intrusion on our youth. That was another occasion where I was more politically minded in a way that I tend not to be in a lot of my work, and then began to get really personal with my work when I started doing the self portrait series a couple of years ago.
About 4 years ago just about to the month actually, my wife and I separated and in my devastation, I began to paint self portraits almost exclusively on canvas and on paper. I had done a bunch of them consistently throughout my career but never like this. It worked as a focus for me, and as the break up hit me really hard it was healthy for me to do this and to look at myself, and ultimately, I decided to hang them in the streets. Instead of doing street campaigns or projects where they were thematically based on some design problem to solve, whether it was imagery of underwater things or images from a children’s book, this was rather different – this was truly putting my emotional insides outside. I think I freaked a lot of people out, and I think a lot of people that knew me and saw the work were a little bit scared of my emotional well being and safety. But you know, all in all they were pretty well received. It felt positive for me and it was a really different experience, a different way to engage people on the streets of New York and I found it very rewarding. I did them in New York and Miami and then I brought them out to Hong Kong last year as well.
Was it cathartic?
I don’t want to say it was like therapy or anything but in some ways I guess it was.
Going back to the TV’s, do you think that the generations coming up are so visually saturated that appreciation of simplicity of what used to be called child like simplicity is vanishing?
I love film and I love television although I hardly ever watch it because I simply don’t have the time. I’m a high school art teacher during the day and when my students heard me mention that I don’t have cable television at the house they couldn’t begin to conceive of what I did with myself when I got home! I certainly don’t blame them because this is what they are used to so I’m trying to direct them into the alternatives of going home and simply putting on the TV or a video game and that’s something I’m teaching my daughter as well. My daughter does watch TV once in a while but primarily she comes home and we spend time outdoors or do art together or a whole list of fun things.
What is the dynamic like with your students because obviously you’re no ordinary art teacher – you’ve got street cred. Does that create an extra bond or an extra respect in the class room?
It can but it can also backfire as well. I don’t parade what I do around school but kids inevitable find out what I’m up to outside of the classroom. If they do ask me about it, I’m honest and I use it as a spring board into talking about the kinds of issues which are very important to me. Street art is a very friendly way of poking at the powers that be and it encourages thought and change. Being in the classroom is a real privilege for me… it’s an opportunity to open hearts and minds.
Although many faculty members and the administration have been very supportive, I think that they would change their tune if I ever get arrested. For the moment everything is great.
Speaking of negative, what are the most hostile and repressive environments you’ve placed work in?
I don’t know that any of places I’ve been to were hostile but I’ve been to some pretty broken down, hurt, and in-need-of-help sort of places. You mentioned New Orleans – Some good friends of mine had taken me all over the city to install street works and it was so powerfully moving to be there, even though it was long after Katrina had torn it apart. Just to know that that community was hit so hard, that there was such a loss of life there from this natural disaster, I’ll never forget it. It was incredible.
Do you find that places like that are far more open to art, are far more receptive, and far more grateful in a way than say high density metropolitan centres?
I do actually and it’s an interesting point. Of course you’ll get questioned but when you explain yourself or you give them a chance to see what you’re doing, they tend to be rather embracing. I found the same with homeless people in New York. I’ve spoken with many of them that have witnessed me doing my work and I’ve had some very profound, honest, and eye opening conversations.
Is the canvas – wall, maps etc an integral part of the work and how does that dynamic play out?
It’s pretty important and that step happened very much by accident. When I was an art student, I didn’t have money to buy paper or anything for that matter so I had to scramble around to find whatever I could. In doing so I found a dumpster on 17th and Broadway used by an architectural firm in the neighbourhood and there were always big rolls of blueprint paper in it which I would happily grab whenever I could. I found the paper to be perfect to paint on, perfect for gluing around the streets and I still use that kind of paper today. What I began to realise as well, is that it was such a fantastic contrast working loosely on top of blueprints that have a real structural rigidity which is the design of the city itself and reintroducing it into the city in a different form. It was a big loop and that led me naturally to the maps. If I haven’t yet gotten to certain parts of the world to share my street art, the maps are a way for me to metaphorically paint the entire planet.
Ever since I was a child I’ve wanted to put a children’s book together and I’ve always had a long list of different ideas that I’ve wanted to do but none of them were really worthy, I felt, to execute. It finally dawned on me about 6 years ago that I should marry together my love and passion for street art along with this desire to create a children’s book and thus Alphabet City was born. It’s essentially a traditional kids’ alphabet book executed in a contemporary way. Each letter of the English alphabet A through Z is represented with one of kind paintings glued up on the streets of Manhattan and then photographed. All of the pieces were done specifically for the book. Thankfully, it was pretty well received and I was really pleased with how cross generational its appeal was. Children as well their parents really seem to like it. While doing work on the streets during the daytime, children more than the adults are the ones that notice me and what I’m doing. This was part of the impetus for the book, as well. My daughter Marianna turned one year old when Alphabet City came out and to give her the first copy and have her flip through it was wonderfully gratifying.
Is there an international, cross cultural, cross generational, language of wonder in this day and age?
Absolutely. I think that some people need to re-connect and to grab some of that magic back – some of that childhood sense of wonder and that child-like way of looking at our world. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all kind of get back to that friendly sense of innocence and naivety. Some of us wouldn’t be so angry at each other
What are your plans this year?
Presently I have quite a bit going on. I have a solo show of paintings and drawings up at No Borders Art in Hong Kong until the end of the summer. I’m in a group show, “Gary Lichtenstein: 35 Years of Screenprinting” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum that’s up until January, 2011. I’m in Festival d’Art Contemporain in the South of France, with a variety of different street projects in St. Remy-de-Provence, Tarascon, and Les Baux. Lastly, I have a piece in “Electric Windows” a group show in Beacon, NY.
Forthcoming, I’m in a group exhibition at Le Poisson Rouge in New York this September to celebrate the release of my friend Jihae’s new album, “Fire Burning Rain”. I also did the artwork for the album. Additionally, I’m participating in a group exhibition in Paris celebrating the anniversary of Le M.U.R. as well as a group benefit exhibition, “Aldrich Undercover” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum both happening this November. Aside from that I’m working on another book.
Interview Taken from LSD Magazine